What can North America's top smart grid teach us?

What can North America's top smart grid teach us?

Image of John Ross Bridge in Chattanooga, Tenn. by Bryce Edwards via Flickr

Utilities today face a rapidly evolving market. Challenges — aging infrastructure, growing distributed energy, renewable energy portfolio standards — stand to disrupt the traditional utility business model. However, many utilities see these challenges as an opportunity. They are leveraging smart grid technologies to transition from yesterday’s one-way grid to the decentralized, interconnected, bi-directional grid of the future.

EPB, a municipal utility serving more than 172,000 homes and businesses across 600 square miles in the Greater Chattanooga, Tenn., area, is leading the charge with smart grid innovation.

EPB began constructing a smart grid in 2008 to reduce the impact of power outages, improve response time, allow customers greater control of their electric power usage and improve communication capabilities. EPB now operates the country's most automated electric distribution grid along with one of its largest 100 percent fiber optic networks.

Adding new applications

Today EPB continues to benefit from its smart grid investment and to add value to customers by partnering with Schneider Electric to implement additional smart grid applications.

EPB is currently deploying Schneider Electric’s Energy Profiler Online, a cloud-based energy management information system. It takes the large volumes of customer usage data (near real-time usage, load and cost information) and turns it into actionable information for customers. For large commercial and industrial customers, EPB rebranded EPO as "Business Power Tracker."

In combination with Schneider Electric’s ION 8000 series meters, EPB’s AMI system and EPBs’ high speed, fiber optics communications network, Business Power Tracker provides a platform for customers to monitor and manage their energy usage.

Advanced features

Although some energy management systems provide utilities with daily data, the Business Power Tracker can provide customer data at 15-minute intervals. It collects AMI and ION data through EPB’s fiber optic network. The advanced metering nodes sample the grid thousands of times per second, and upload detailed analysis to various software systems when problems are detected. As a result, EPB can monitor potential power quality and reliability issues in near-real time and provide that information to customers. This allows customers to make operational changes throughout the day, or to analyze the data over time.

For example, EPB customer Signal Mountain Cement is using the Business Power Tracker (in conjunction with the utility’s Key Accounts Program) to maximize energy efficiency without the expense of hiring an energy management consultant.

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EPB’s investment in new smart grid applications offers customers greater reliability and efficiency. EPB also sees its current implementation as a platform for future advances and customer options.

 Jamie via Flickr

Smarter grid = smarter city

EPB’s smart grid implementation also has produced benefits for the community as a whole. Ultimately the smart grid has formed the backbone for Chattanooga to become a smarter city. For instance, the grid enables very high-speed Internet for all homes and businesses in the utility’s 600-square-mile service territory, helping attract new businesses and create new jobs. (A 1 gigabit-per-second service is available as a standard offer.)

Chattanooga is a prime example of how a smart grid can be an economic engine for cities by reducing power outages, improving reliability, preparing for future power demands and offering next-generation communications.

Key takeaways

Although smart grid deployment will be different for every utility, EPB’s experience suggests that engaging with the community is key. EPB engaged early, spending months speaking with neighborhood associations, civic groups, business leaders and general community members about its smart grid plans. Without the community support, the smart grid deployment would have been much more challenging.

Smart grid success also demands enhanced customer communication and convenience. This is made possible by advanced telecommunications, mobile platforms and interactive apps. In EPB’s case, customers saw an immediate benefit in the form of faster Internet and better options for TV and phone service. It wasn’t until they started seeing real benefits in reliability that customers started to understand the larger benefits the smart grid was producing.

Consumers increasingly expect fast, convenient access to information — anything from how fast a package will be delivered to the best deal on a flight. The same expectations soon will apply to electricity. Smart grid technology combined with fast, high-bandwidth telecommunications will allow more utilities to follow EPB’s lead. They will be able to manage growing demand and peak loads, integrate more green energy onto the grid and improve electricity quality and reliability, while providing their customers with more advanced communication services

Top image of John Ross Bridge by Bryce Edwards via Flickr. This article first appeared at Smart Grid News.